The world is watching as our war in Iraq drags on, a war rooted in the Bush administration’s distortions and penchant for militaristic solutions. The rhetoric that led to the invasion of Iraq echoes the language used twenty-five years before to justify similar misadventures in Central America. While lacking the anti-Communist references of the past, we again hear that “freedom and democracy” and the “overthrow of tyranny” are the justification and goals of our military intervention. Ironically, our failure in the Middle East today—a failure to learn from past interventions in our hemisphere—is creating the possibility of further setbacks closer to home, setbacks clearly signaled during President George W. Bush’s recent trip to Argentina to attend a hemispheric summit on free trade.

Twenty-five years ago, on December 2, 1980, security forces in El Salvador tortured and murdered Sisters Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel, and Miss Jane Donovan. The soldiers then forced villagers near a remote hamlet to bury the bodies. As U.S. ambassador to El Salvador at the time, I was present at the disinterment. When I returned to San Salvador, I sent a telegram to Washington reporting that the murders had all the marks of a Salvadoran military operation. President Jimmy Carter immediately went on national television and announced that he was temporarily suspending military and economic aid to El Salvador until that government demonstrated its resolve to bring the killers to justice.

When President Ronald Reagan took office on January 20, 1981, less than two months later, outrage at the deaths of the four women was in short supply. I recommended to Secretary of State Alexander Haig that he condemn the killings, but he indicated that he was not going to criticize the Salvadoran junta, a government under siege. Along with Jean Kirkpatrick, U.S. ambassador to the UN, he even attacked the reputations of the church women. Kirkpatrick said the nuns were political activists, while Haig told a congressional group that the women may have been shot as they tried to run a roadblock. Both statements were untrue and their authors knew it. So when Haig ordered me to send a telegram stating that the Salvadoran government was making a serious effort to solve the crimes, I had little doubt that my refusal to comply would end my career as a professional diplomat. I was not mistaken. The next day, Haig ordered me to Washington and summarily dismissed me from my post. Within months, I was forced out of the Foreign Service.

For the next decade, the Reagan and first Bush administrations carried out policies that had catastrophic results for Central America: more than one hundred fifty thousand civilians killed, hundreds of millions of dollars of property and productive capacity destroyed, the environment devastated, and 2 million refugees displaced to the United States as illegal immigrants.

Every U.S. president gives speeches about the importance of Latin America for U.S. foreign policy. When President George W. Bush first took office, he even promised to make the new millennium “a century of the Americas.” Yet only three modern chiefs of state have gone beyond the rhetoric and enacted policies that captured the imagination and the support of Latin Americans themselves. Franklin D. Roosevelt famously dedicated our nation to the role of Good Neighbor, John F. Kennedy met the revolutionary appeal of Fidel Castro with massive funding for the Alliance for Progress, and Jimmy Carter put human rights at the forefront of his Latin America policy. These sound, creative policies never had sufficient time to demonstrate their worth. All three fell victim to powerful cold-war bureaucracies that regarded any multilateral or collective-security agreements as infringements on our government’s right to take unilateral action in Latin America when confronted with supposed threats to national security. The 1954 CIA-sponsored overthrow of the elected government of Guatemala finished off the Good Neighbor policy and its basic tenet of nonintervention. The 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic effectively ended the commitment of the Alliance for Progress to hemispheric democracy. And President Reagan’s involvement in Nicaragua and El Salvador led to the conviction in Latin America that the United States had once again donned the imperial mantle...and liked its fit.

Today, free markets, privatization, and democracy are ostensibly the Bush team’s foreign-policy prescription for Latin America, but they occasionally indulge the old temptation to destabilize an obstreperous chief of state—with serious repercussions for U.S. standing in the region. The CIA is credibly alleged to have played a pivotal role in the 2004 ouster of the democratically elected Jean Bertrand Aristide in Haiti, and, in Venezuela, the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Republican Institute channeled substantial resources to opposition groups who refused to accept the free, fair elections that twice returned Hugo Chávez to the presidency. With the apparent knowledge of the Bush administration and the encouragement of at least a few high Washington officials, Venezuelan dissident groups succeeded in temporarily overthrowing Chávez in May 2002.

The clearest evidence of the Bush administration’s involvement in those events was in the immediate aftermath of the coup: President Bush did not convene his National Security Council following the overthrow of a constitutional government in an oil-rich country of major strategic importance; and the State Department did not convoke a meeting of foreign ministers of the Organization of American States (OAS), as required under the Santiago Declaration. Instead, the White House rushed to shore up the illegitimate regime, welcoming the new government’s “commitment to democracy.” The morning after the coup, Ambassador Charles Shapiro called on the coup president, Pedro Carmona, conferring de facto recognition. Yet within hours, Carmona himself was fleeing the country and crowds packed the streets welcoming Chávez’s return. Despite evidence accumulated over decades, the Bush foreign-policy team has yet to grasp that there is a price to be paid for bad policies toward Latin America. To them, the wreckage of our relations with our Latin neighbors falls under the heading of collateral damage, regrettable but capable of instant repair whenever we may need regional cooperation.

That assumption may no longer be true, as recent events at the free-trade summit and even at the OAS demonstrate. For example, when the Good Neighbor policy was dismantled, the OAS lost its central purpose for existence. With no collective security to administer, its Permanent Council became little more than an adjunct of U.S. foreign policy. Whenever it was time to choose a new secretary general, member states routinely voted for Washington’s favorite. But this year, the election of a new secretary general assumed all the elements of a David vs. Goliath morality play. Washington’s candidate for the post was Salvadoran President Francisco Flores, the only Latin leader who had recognized the coup regime in Venezuela, and a man regarded throughout the hemisphere as a puppet of the United States. When the Bush administration decided to back Flores, it apparently missed the important news that Chávez had granted thirteen Caribbean states preferential oil deals. These demonstrated their gratitude by opposing Flores. When the United States found it had fewer than eight votes, it had to withdraw the nomination. Whereas Bush’s aides have seen Chávez only in light of the latter’s close ties to Cuba, the Venezuelan leader’s influence is now growing throughout the region, as demonstrated at the Argentine summit. By backing a coup against an elected president, the Bush administration has made Chávez a hero.

Lord Acton said, “That man is justly despised who has one opinion in history and another in politics, one for abroad and another for home, one for opposition and another for office.” That has been the central flaw in our relationship with Latin America. We have talked one way but acted another, a mentality that brought us the Bay of Pigs and the never-ending embargo against Cuba, the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile and our sponsorship of the Pinochet dictatorship, our nod of approval to the Argentine dirty war, our interventions in Central America, and our complicity in the recent coups in Haiti and Venezuela.

American failures abroad usually occur when we violate the ideals that undergird our society. President Bush’s attack on Iraq is arguably the most reckless war in our history. One of its unanticipated consequences may prove to be that we inadvertently increased Hugo Chávez’s stature in Latin America. How ironic that the near-universal rejection of Bush’s polices may prove to be a more powerful unifying force in Latin America than the noble efforts of Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Carter.


Related: Death & Lies in El Salvador, by Margaret O'Brien Steinfels
A Bond of Blood, by Gene Palumbo

Robert E. White, a former United States ambassador to El Salvador and Paraguay, is president of the Center for International Policy.
Also by this author

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Published in the 2005-11-18 issue: View Contents
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